Sunday, December 25, 2011

Can We Still Be Amazed By These Ancient Truths-- Homily for LUKE 2:16-21

Nativity of the Lord
LUKE 2:16-21
Year B
Homily for 1.1.12












This week and next the Lectionary Gospel reading offers us a description of the circumstances that surrounded Jesus’ birth. Today we view Mary and the shepherds and next week Mary and the Magi.

Of course we know that the shepherds were considered to be of low estate in ancient Judea. Theirs was a dirty business, work that took them beyond the ritual purity of then temple. 

One wonders what GOD could have been up to by presenting the news of Jesus' birth to these lower-class men. Someone has said that the angelic host appeared to the shepherds because it was an announcement of their impending lay-off. You see, these shepherds kept sheep for the temple sacrifices, and GOD was letting them know that the last, great sacrifice had just been born, and that soon they would be out of work.

But, I rather think this was, instead, the preview of things to come. Think of the Prophets words that Jesus himself quotes at the beginning of his own ministry:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion...(Isaiah 61:1-3a)
Notice, then, what today's Gospel reading tells us about the shepherds. First, they went to see the child. That is, they acted on the heavenly vision. Second, they proclaimed what they heard and saw:
they made known the message that had been told them about this child.All who heard it were amazedby what had been told them by the shepherds...
And, finally, they themselves praised GOD for the reality of the heavenly vision. This means they were affected spiritually by the presence of the angels and the little baby boy, who was proclaimed to them as Messiah:
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:8-11)
Notice also what today's Gospel reading tells us about Mary. The text reads: 
Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.
She had to be amazed at the events surrounding the delivery of this baby. Not only was it amazing that this baby existed in her, but how she must have pondered in shock at the equivalent of the local factory workers coming to the birth scene. This was a very private moment for her made very public indeed!

While, we do not know exactly what was her reflection, we do know what she did. Mary obeyed the heavenly vision and named the child Jesus, which means Savior in Hebrew.

As I pondered over this text there were three questions that surfaced toward an application of this scripture for us today, I wondered:

CAN WE STILL BE AMAZED?

CAN WE STILL PROCLAIM WHAT WE HAVE SEEN AND HEARD?

CAN WE STILL REFLECT ON THESE ANCIENT TRUTHS?


CAN WE STILL BE AMAZED?
The shepherds were amazed at the heavenly word, which caused me to wonder if we could still be amazed at GOD's work in the world. This, I think, is a genuine challenge, and offers us a difficult word to hear. 

You see, we in the West are the sophisticated ones, aren't we? We are the jaded generation. We've seen it all and done it all, and we are satiated with the experiences of "faith," so we have become wearied and spiritually spent. 

I wonder, in this context then, could even appearing angels shake us out of our stupor, so stuffed are we with the bloated collections of things and things and more things that we have no room in our hearts for wonder, awe or astonishment!

And, to be clear, I am talking to the church here, and not the world.

Said differently: We are sick at heart. In our selfishness -- which we seek to shroud even from ourselves -- we trade our heart-heritage of grace and sacrificial giving for the pottage of partisan politics, the need to be viewed as powerful and the security found in our possessions, all of which threatens our ability to truly follow the Christ and to hear a fresh word from him. Which leads to the second question:

CAN WE STILL PROCLAIM WHAT WE HAVE SEEN AND HEARD?
You see, the challenge for us, ultimately, is our cultural captivity. Clearly, we need the culture to accept us and like us, for this acceptance and likability means to our minds that what we proclaim is true; it makes our message credible, to us. If somehow we are not heard, not relevant, not accepted then it is the message that we must change. That is, to be thought of as immaterial to the culture, or worse yet inappropriate, is pure anathema to us.

This makes the proclamation of the true Gospel all the more challenging for us. As long as the Gospel is the personal good news that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, then all is well. But, if we come to see the Gospel as the actual proclamation that a new King over the entire world has been and is being enthroned, then the weight of this truth challenges the church in the West and shakes it to its very core.

But, to be honest, I don't know how else one reads a text like Philippians 2:9-11:
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 
This is why Universalism is so popular today. We don't mind proclaiming Jesus is LORD of the world if eventually everyone in the end is saved. And this is why a privatized gospel, one created for the private world only, manifests no calling to anyone, and is actually no Gospel at all. Sadly, this private gospel is what we proclaim to the world.

I must confess I feel this acutely, and I would argue that this actually constitutes the primary challenge for the church in the West, especially with our shrinking numbers. Will we continue to opt for a message palatable to the culture so we can “grow” the church, or will we choose to be faithful to the spirit of the Gospel and to the Spirit's leading? 

Which leads to the final question:

CAN WE STILL REFLECT ON THESE ANCIENT TRUTHS?
by which I mean to ask, is the church in the West open to an extended discussion on the key questions that we face us, the most important of which is, will the church in the West recapture the calling to elicit reconciliation and service in the world at war with itself?

Let’s be clear: If we are ever to manifest the message and practice of the Christ -- reconciliation and sacrificial service -- the church first must be reconciled to itself. That is, we must swiftly and surely move beyond the divisions that splinter the universal church, demanding neither our own way nor the surrender of our own distinctives. Until we find the ground to do this, we will never be heard as a credible voice in the world.

Said differently, if we cannot overcome our hatred for other Christians because they do not see the Christ the way we do, how can we expect the watching world to see in us anything but, at best, part of the muffled din of post-modern fog they experience all the live-long day, or at worst part of the real hate and divisions that plague our world with war and violence?

Second, we must, actively, be the suffering servants to the poor, the prisoner, the sick, the dying, and the homeless. I cannot emphasize this enough. For, when we say Jesus is LORD of the world, what we mean is that Jesus, far from being a dictator with a theocratic agenda, is the Master found on his knees washing the feet of the broken and weary, the lost and the dying. This is what it means when we say: "Jesus is LORD." 

__________________________

LUKE 2:16-21
The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this,
they made known the message 
that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed
by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen, 
just as it had been told to them.
When eight days were completed for his circumcision,
he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel
before he was conceived in the womb.